The United States guarantees a right to free speech under the 1st Amendment, but American society has generally agreed that right only extends to the point where it infringes on the rights of others. That’s not unreasonable.
What someone says or how they might say it has brought certain peril in times of tension throughout this nation’s history, and the U.S. finds itself in that territory of heightened awareness today perhaps more than any other time in the past.
Take, for instance, the case of former West Virginia University student Zachary Ryan Johnson. According to the Dominion Post, Johnson was acquitted by a jury last week on charges of making terroristic threats and threatening communication by use of an electronic device.
Johnson admitted to sending a message last year while a student at WVU via the social media platform Snapchat, in which he proclaimed he felt “like doing a mass shooting.” Johnson said the message was a joke that, in hindsight, was not a good idea.
On that point, we certainly agree, given the number of shootings that have claimed countless lives and inflicted untold numbers of physical and psychological wounds on the survivors, occurring everywhere from colleges, elementary schools and movie theaters to department stores and outdoor festivals. Any public indication that a similar incident may be about to happen has to be taken extremely seriously.
Classmates said Johnson had made another, similar statement while at WVU. He denied it, and the jury believed he was no threat. So, perhaps for Johnson this is all a very harsh lesson on watching what you say.
Indeed, how many Americans every day maybe send a text to a friend or loved one that may include a reference to violence or suicide in a joking manner? How many look at what they’ve written and furiously backspace, or delete the thing entirely, realizing it probably wasn’t funny to begin with?
It can seem a bit frightening or overwhelming, having to censor your own, private communications because of the way it might be interpreted. It seems that would be an easier call to make on social media, though there is ample evidence daily that some just don’t get it. But leniency there is vanishing as well as companies like Facebook and Twitter have begun to crack down on threats and hate speech (it’s about time).
The country has reached a point where the line can be blurry, though good taste and common sense would certainly seem to steer away from joking about such topics. Lacking either of those aforementioned sensibilities, well, that’s where the companies and even law enforcement have to sometimes step in.
These are the times, and that’s the basic price Americans now have to pay because of the state of affairs surrounding them. And maybe it’s not all that different from the standard that has always applied. Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion that it’s not OK to yell “fire” in a theater is still a good rule of thumb, even if done these days with all capital text and flame emojis.